The Evolution of ArtPrize

ArtPrize, Laborer
Laborer, Mike Wsol

There are big changes on the horizon for ArtPrize—the massive, independently organized art competition that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to Grand Rapids each fall. On the heels of its 10th anniversary, ArtPrize announced that it will be launching a new project called Project 1 by ArtPrize—an immersive art experience that will bring the work of a featured artist, or artists, to the city. Project 1 and ArtPrize will alternate each year, giving guests different ways to engage art in Grand Rapids.

GR|MAG sat down with Jori Bennett, executive director of ArtPrize, to learn more about the project and what it means for ArtPrize.

The Red Dirt Rug Monument, Rena Detrixhe
The Red Dirt Rug Monument, Rena Detrixhe

GR|MAG: So, wow. OK. Crazy. This is exciting! What is this all about?

JB: It is exciting! I think it’s exciting because of the groundwork we’ve laid to get to this point. You know, we’ve had nine years of ArtPrize and the conversation around art was so different in 2009 than it is now, thanks to all the work that the community does around the arts and culture sector.

People feel like they can approach art now in a much different way––maybe a more welcoming way than they could before ArtPrize. So, we sort of laid the groundwork, I think, now to make an exciting change with Project 1 that is going to deepen the conversation, really between our visitors and the artists that are displaying and the city and really what that means.

GR|MAG: So, the big question, what prompted this change?

JB: We were founded on a mission of generating conversation and catalytic activity around contemporary art. And so, it’s incumbent on us to keep the game exciting––keep it engaging for people. There’s no better time than now after having 10 years of ArtPrize to change that and make it exciting again for people.

When they come down in the Project 1 years, we want to surprise and delight. We want people to be blown away. We want people to engage with the art in a way that is exciting and new and fun. Also, by taking ArtPrize to a biennial format, meaning every other year, we actually think that’s going to make it more special.

We think that it will also create more oxygen for our partners. You think about venues and artists who put so much sweat equity, and time and their own funding into the work that they do for ArtPrize––we hope this gives them a little bit more oxygen to have a longer lead time. And also, for venues to hopefully experiment a little bit and do something different and on their own terms in the Project 1 years.

Bloodline, Holly Wilson
Bloodline, Holly Wilson

GR|MAG: Will the years of ArtPrize be the same way that they have been, or will there be any changes to that?

JB: You know, we like to tinker with the ArtPrize platform and make things more exciting. So, I think that will still be something people can expect, but the framework and the core elements of ArtPrize are here to stay and will continue.

GR|MAG: So, how will the projects be different than ArtPrize?

JB: So, when you think about ArtPrize, it’s sort of many projects that come over––1,500 different projects that come on display. So, people are able to explore this wide approach but not necessarily get very deep with any one. So, when we started to think about what would be an interesting change, what would change the conversation, what would keep things exciting, we thought about inverting that sort of equation and going really deep with a select few artists.

People will still be able to come down and walk around and explore the city, but in a way that’s maybe not as rushed where they can slow down. They can have a deeper conversation, they can dive deeper into that artist’s intent and sort of how the artist is reacting––responding to our community and the city itself in a way that’s very different than ArtPrize. We like that sort of contrast between the two and almost changing cadence––how people are experiencing the city in the fall. I sort of say that if ArtPrize is like the speed-dating scenario with art, Project 1 is maybe a deeper, longer-term engagement with an artist or art.

ArtPrize draws hundreds of thousands of people to downtown Grand Rapids each year. A Bit of Me in You (Echo Point), CT Hankins
ArtPrize draws hundreds of thousands of people to downtown Grand Rapids each year. A Bit of Me in You (Echo Point), CT Hankins

GR|MAG: So, are those artists submitting their work in the same sort of way as ArtPrize? How does that work?

JB: We are going to be selecting them as a team here. We’re appointing a national arts advisory committee that will help us generate those connection points with artists and help make that decision on who we ultimately work with. But again, that’s another fun contrast. As you know well, in ArtPrize, we don’t actually know––most of the time––what’s coming until we’re right on the heels of the fall event. This way, we’re going to be able to be very thoughtful in who we select and work really closely with them, collaborate with them on what is it going to look like, where is it going to go, who in the community are you going to engage.

So, where in ArtPrize we award a big cash prize at the end––and really, as long as an artist makes a connection with a venue, they’re automatically entered into ArtPrize––in Project 1 years, we’re actually going to be taking that funding––the prize money––and converting that into a commission that will pay for the production and the installation of that project.

It will be multi-cited––largely outdoors. It’ll be centered around the downtown area; however, I think there are opportunities, depending on the artist’s approach and what they’re looking to do, to have other sites out in other communities highlighted.

GR|MAG: There have been comments on social media about Project 1 affecting the economic impact that some businesses have come to rely on. Can you speak on that?

JB: I think in 2009, the event was not designed with that as its intent. The intent was really to drive conversation around contemporary art, and that became a really nice outcome of ArtPrize.

In thinking about project one years, of course, it’s a new event, and we’re not going to sit here and promise that it’s going to have the same economic impact. However, it’s every intention, on our end, that we feel it’s going to generate a lot of excitement and probably international visitors that maybe wouldn’t necessarily come to an ArtPrize, but because of the artist, they’re attracted to come here.

Two-way Protocols, Zane Miller
Two-way Protocols, Zane Miller

I think about conferences and conventions and things that will avoid ArtPrize because they worry about parking and all those things for their visitors. I think there’s more opportunity now for that longer period for people to highlight the city with their key stakeholders, whether it’s a conference or convention, in a way that’s just different in ArtPrize years. So that, in turn, can generate economic impact in a way that’s different than what we see with ArtPrize.

The cultural impact and how we’re going to be able to engage other communities through this––there’s all sorts of ways to measure impact, of course. I think for us, that’s one outcome that’s fantastic, and it’s great for the city, and we certainly imagine that’s going to happen, but we also think other great outcomes are going to come out of this new approach that we would have never imagined.

GR|MAG: So, what are you most looking forward to about Project 1?

JB: Being in this really exciting position where we have this wonderful community-owned event and all these learnings that come behind it and now this opportunity to take that and take it to another level is exciting for me. I also think, for me personally but also our team here, we’re excited to pivot what our job and our department looks like in a Project 1 year versus an ArtPrize year, and that change in cadence for us, I think, is just as exciting as it’s going to be for our visitors and our community partners and venues.

I know when ArtPrize was launched in 2009, people were like ‘this is a weird idea. Who knows if this is going to work, but we’ll wait and see.’ And now, you know, history happened. And so, I think we’re challenged with that same sort of not knowing with Project 1, but hopefully people have a little bit more… because we have a track record, people might have a little bit more trust and faith that the team at ArtPrize can deliver and deliver something really spectacular, and that’s our hope.

*Main photo: Laborer, Mike Wsol. Photos courtesy of ArtPrize.

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